By Desert Mouse
In the small village of Forest Lake where very little of interest has happened according to the memories of the oldest residents. Hiding in an inn that sees only the occasional traveler passing through town on some mild adventure, the Inn's maid sat at her desk in the room that made a large part of her payment for working there. Since she did not have enough money for a place of her own, and she had no one to take care of her. Tima worked at this little inn for a very small fee, room and board.
"What should I tell her this week?" Tima thought staring at the parchment in front of her. Every week she would write to her friend in Windley castle, though it was not always easy to get her letter to her friend. It could be expensive to hire a messenger bird, and even working at the Inn it could become difficult to find a traveler heading in that direction willing to carry a message.
She was finally ready to start writing, a decision made at last about what to tell her friend this week. Though nothing would ever be able to top the events of two years ago when Tima had met the famed swordsman Winter Wind.
"Tima, get down here please." The innkeepers voice bellowed with a kind tone. She was disappointed that her letter would have to wait, but Tima smiled.
"A visitor this early in the afternoon?" she thought surprised. Tima quickly put her things away and went downstairs to greet the new visitor. But when she reached the front desk, to her surprise there was nobody but the innkeeper and his wife.
"Tima, we need you to hide." The innkeeper said worried.
"Have I done something wrong?" Tima asked confused.
"There is a marching army outside of town. But we don't know what they want. Please find a place to be safe until this passes." The innkeeper told her. He had known her for more then two years now. She was a hard worker and a kind woman. But he knew that she was fragile. If the army of the black king had come to cause trouble, she would not have the strength to survive and the old innkeeper did not want to see her get hurt.
"Is there anything I can do?" Tima asked softly
"Please, just hide." He repeated.
"He looks scared. Why wont he left me help?" Tima thought. She reluctantly nodded and left the inn after wishing the couple luck.
"Where can I hide?" she wondered. She was not afraid of what might happen, but she had been told to hide and she did not want to disobey the kindly old couple. And she didn't want to give them a reason to worry about her.
She did have one hiding spot that she could remember. It was a place that Winter Wind had showed her and asked that she remain for a short time after she had helped him. Just like the innkeeper he had been concerned about her safety and located this place for her. Tima made her way across the small village towards a collapsed house. Some years ago even before she had come to Forest Lake the large tree beside the house had fallen, causing the home's roof to collapse. Since the owner had been an old man living by himself. He decided to move in with his daughter's family rather then rebuild.
"Acting on a hunch from the looks of this home. I suspected it might have a hiding space beneath the floor. For your own safety I would like to ask you to remain here for a short time." Duncan's voice echoed in her mind. That's what he had told her a couple of years ago, the man known as Winter Wind.
"What about my job?" she had asked him.
"I already spoke to your employer. They have agreed to allow this with no consequences to you or your position." The warrior had assured her.
"How long should I stay? No one knows about this place except me so they won't be able to come and get me like Winter Wind had." Tima thought concerned. Outside of the house she could hear a lot of noise starting to stir. Something big was starting to happen as she heard townspeople yelling. Quickly she scrambled into the little hole and closed the top. Plunging herself into darkness. She would just have to trust herself to know when the time was right to emerge.
It was difficult to tell how much time has passed with the horrifying sounds as her only companion. Tima almost left her hole when she started to smell something burning. Her hiding spot started to become a lot warmer. She was getting concerned but remained where she was, fearing that if she left the old couple would be disappointed in her. Eventually Tima started to drift off to sleep after she got used to the heat wave.
By the time she woke up, startled by a terrifying vision in her sleep all the noise from outside was gone. She was left only with an eerie silence and even the temperature felt like it had returned to normal. She waited only as long as she felt that she had to before leaving the hole for the first time. The dead silence was her hope that the danger had passed and she could go home.
Emerging from that hiding place, Tima felt like she had left the world she knew behind. In whatever short time that she had been sleeping in that hole, everything had changed. The house that her hiding spot was in was charred, someone had tried to set the place on fire but it had only burned for a couple hours. Beyond the crumbled home was much worse off as the town had been reduced to smoldering ruins. What few buildings still remained standing could be seen in flames, finding much more fresh fuel then in her collapsed hiding place.
"Hello?" Tima called out hoping that at least someone had remained behind. But her call went unanswered, the only people that she could find were the mutilated corpses of people that she had once known. Tima spent the rest of the day, and the following one walking among the dead of Forest Lake. She hunted hopelessly for survivors, or signs of where the rest of the townspeople must have fled to safety. At night she would return to her little hole and hide from the world.
On the afternoon of the second day since the attack, Tima watched two women walk into town. She hid behind a lone stone chimney watching the strangers dig around the wreckage for a day. She wasn't sure if the couple would try to hurt her, or if they were here to help. So she watched from afar. One of the ladies had blonde hair and looked like she was familiar with the town. She walked around lost in her thoughts where her companion frightened Tima. The black haired creature looked dead inside and had a tail dragging behind her.
"A Jiyu'rei?" Tima thought surprised. Despite what she knew about the Jiyu'rei the way this one moved made her nervous and reluctant to approach the pair. Instead she remained out of sight even when the blonde warrior started calling for survivors.
That night as she lay propped up against the wall of her little hiding hole. Tima thought long and hard, hunting through her memories for something that would guide her next steps.
"Should I approach them? Will they help me, do they know where everyone else is? Or are they part of who did this?" She kept asking herself. She thought about her good friend Rei back in Windley and could not help being afraid how her friend might react if those two women killed her.
"What would Rei tell me to do?" she wondered.
It all started about sixteen years ago when a ten-year-old Tima was on her way to Windley with her parents. Every three years a festival was held in Windley and this year since she was ten, Tima's parents decided that she was now old enough to make the trip. When the walled city loomed into view a voice called out from the side of the road.
"Can we have a word with you sir?" Tima looked with her father as two men ran up to them in farmers clothing. One of the men had a deep red armband on.
"What?" Tima's father demanded. He knew who these two worked for, and he could bet that they were up to no good. The man with the armband grinned at her father before replying in a chilling voice.
"Give us the kid." Tima looked at the stranger confused, why would he want her?
"No." Tima's father replied firmly. In his younger days he had trained himself to fight, hoping to join the Windley army before he met his future wife and re-thought the plans. He knew what the red armband was and didn't want to think about what sick and disgusting things these two bandits might do to hurt his daughter. He didn't wait for them to respond before he lashed out at them. His wife spotting what he was doing joined in armed only with the determination to protect her child.
The red-armed man responded quicker then his partner. His weapon had been drawn before the girl's father punched his companion. The girl's mother charged at him recklessly hoping to distract him. It almost worked but he brought his sword up in time and impaled her on the tip. He quickly dug his sword from her body and turned to the father who was already on him. He pierced the man's shoulder hoping to disable him so they could take the child and torture her for fun and to initiate the new Red Reaper.
Tima's father had other plans. Even injured he knocked the first Reaper down, allowing his sword to fall before leaping on top of the bandit to strangle the life out of the criminal. He failed to notice when the Reaper in training stumbled to his feet and drew a small knife. Angry he approached Tima's father who saw him too late to fully avoid the knife. The bandit punctured his side and opened him wide while he rolled away.
Now desperate, Tima's father reached for the first bandit's fallen sword and gripping the handle he pointed it at the man holding the knife. It took all her father's strength to hold that sword steady, but the ruse worked and the two bandits quickly re-evaluated the fight before running off to find less troublesome prey.
He waited until they were far out of sight before allowing the soiled sword to fall from his hands. Immediately he clutched the tear at his side trying to keep the blood in. Tima looked at him pale as a ghost, the smell of his life draining out of him onto the dirt was making her ill. She stood frozen, unsure what she should do to help him.
"Tima." Her father spoke suddenly.
"Help me up..please." he told her. He looked sadly at his wife knowing that they would have to leave her body behind. He didn't have a lot of time himself and had to get his daughter to safety. Tima slowly moved towards her father and helped him to his feet. However she still had to support him.
"We need to get you to safety." He told her. She looked to her mothers still form.
"Mommy's gone, I'm going to join her but please there isn't much time. We have to get to Windley." He said between painful gasps. Together they made way to the gates of Windley. Tima's father by that time had lost so much blood that he could barely speak when a pair of helpful soldiers had approached them.
One of them took Tima's father from her, releasing her from the grown man's weight while they tried to get him to a healer.
"what happened?" the guard asked on the way. He waited patiently for Tima's father to find the strength to answer.
"Red Reapers, they wanted my daughter. Please help her reach safety," he replied.
Her father had died moments before the healer had been reached. His wound had been too deep and he lost more blood then either of the soldiers had realized.
After her father passed away Tima was given a few hours to sit with his body and cry. The full realization that she was now alone would not hit until much later. She could barely hear the two soldiers that watched over her talking. But she wasn't paying much attention. Then the two fell silent, one of them approached her with a friendly smile.
"Hello, my name is Jake. What is yours?" he asked her in a friendly voice. She looked at him almost afraid to answer.
"Tima." She replied quietly.
"Hello Tima, do you have any family nearby? Or where you are from?" Jake asked her. He gave her a few minutes to think about her response.
"No." she said. Tima had never met her grandparents if they were still alive, and neither of her parents had siblings.
"Well then Tima I need to bring you to a special place. But I need your help." Jake said. She looked at him confused.
"Your parents can't take care of you anymore. There is a place that I can take you but it might not be safe for you. But if you are willing, then the castle might need a little help from a special girl like you." Jake explained.
"Do you like to clean?" he asked
"A little." She replied sheepishly, she had often helped her mom around the house. Jake extended his hand to her.
"Would you like to help us out then? I am sure they would love to have a sweet girl like you hanging around.
"Ok." Tima replied unsure. She glanced at her father wishing that he would wake up so they could get mommy and go home.
"Lets go then. Its almost suppertime and you have had a long day. There is still so much we need to do." Jake said. She slowly reached up and took his hand. He gently led her down the city streets towards the largest building Tima had ever seen. In time she would come to know this castle as home. Jake brought her inside and she was taken to a large room Tima would later learn was the audience chamber. Jake turned to one of the soldiers standing watch over the otherwise empty room.
"Any word on the Duke's location? I must speak with him."
"I believe he is in the gardens resting until dinner." The solider replied.
"Thank you." Jake said, he gave Tima a reassuring smile and started to lead her towards the gardens.
Duke Anthony Windley was a respectable looking man. He was fairly well built but with the days of his warrior youth slipping away from him. The beginning signs of an old fat man had shown themselves. Jake and Tima approached slowly and then stopped at a respectful distance.
"I beg your pardon my Lord. I do not means to intrude but I have a young lady who's possible employment I thought you would wish to handle personally." Jake said bowing. The Duke looked up from the leather bound book in his hands and started to ask.
"Why do you suspect." Then his eyes rested on Tima.
"Did Michel put you up to this?"
"I fear not my Lord. She wishes to assist the maid staff."
"This castle does not employ slaves or children." The Duke responded a little annoyed.
"I understand my Lord. However we had hoped that you would consider her situation." Jake explained. Duke Windley's curiosity was peeked so he sat waiting for the solider to continue. The Duke was prepared to hear that the child's parents were sick or poor and needed the income, but what Jake told him caught him off guard.
"Her parents were recently killed by the Red Reaper's outside the city." Jake told him.
"Her father made it into Windley before death claimed him, and he requested that I see to her safety. She has no family from what we can tell so I brought her here in the hopes that she can remain outside an orphanage.
"Red Reapers? Are you positive?" Windley asked. He rose to his feet concerned.
"Yes my Lord. Her father described one with a red armband. They desired her for an unknown reason." Jake replied. The Duke thought about it for a minute.
"Take her to Linda to get set up. If there is any chance that the Red Reapers still hold interest in her she would not be safe in an orphanage. Tell Linda the situation and instruct her that for the first week I want someone with this child at all times." The Duke decided.
"If anything happens to that girl while she's here, Ripley will have my ass before Sutherland gets to it." He warned. Anthony didn't like the idea of forcing a child to work in his castle. The situation made him uncomfortable and it was because he understood the child had so few options. But if King Sutherland learned of the child, the trust between the two rulers could be broken. However his mood changed considerably when Tima spoke in a soft voice.
"Thank you sir."
"She seems like a good kid, go get her settled in please." Windley said kindly. Then she was whisked away from the Duke and taken deeper into the castle. She was staring to realize that a big change in her life was happening, but she refused to think about it. Afraid that if she did the events of the day would become real. Tima was taken through the south wing to where the servant quarters were located. They found Linda in a small office preparing work lists for the next few days.
"Excuse me madam." Jake said politely. At first the woman didn't look up from her work, but when Jake cleared his throat she sighed and had to admit she was being interrupted again.
"May I help you?" she asked the unknown solider. She noticed a child partially hidden behind his leg.
"Duke Windley has asked me to bring you a new employee. He would like her settled into come quarters but she may start when you're ready." He explained. Linda looked around but the only people she could see were the solider and the girl.
"You don't mean her?" Linda asked. The solider nodded his head.
"But she's just a child! What am I supposed to do with her?" Linda asked.
"I'm afraid that's not my job to know. Give her a chance at least. There is nowhere else for her and the Duke decided this was best." He told her. Linda looked at him realizing that there was something she needed to know.
"all right out with it." She asked fiercely.
"What makes her so special that Duke Windley would risk the King's annoyance and employ her at such an age." Jake waited awhile before slowly explaining the situation, including the Duke's commands that she be watched for a time. He stopped only when Linda understood the situation and understood it.
"Made me feel like I had been bad. Always being watched like that." Tima thought trying to shake herself from the memories. But it had not lasted long, by the end of her orientation, which had been extended a few days because she had been so young at the time. The castle had determined that the people responsible for killing her parents were not still after her.
Sitting in that dark hole alone, Tima's mind started to drift to the only real friend she ever had.
"Why did I leave the castle? I just wanted to stand on my own for once. But I left not only my friend, but the castles safety. But now everything is gone." Tima thought sadly. She could remember the first time that she had met her friend Rei. It had been a chance encounter only a week after she had come to work at the castle. She had barely started to come to terms with the loss of her family so she had not spoken much since Jake had left her in the hands of Linda. It was the first time that she had been allowed to work by herself. Linda had given her a very light list of chores to do, giving her a chance to become accustomed to the work. She was making the bed in a child's room, the Duke's son she remembered hearing when she started the week before.
Tima worked quietly, taking her time so she would do the work right and not get into trouble. She wasn't paying much attention when the door opened, feeling that it wasn't her place to know who went where. All that she worried about was that she was supposed to be here, making this bed. She became aware when a girls soft voice spoke up.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I was looking for Mike." Tima looked up from her work to see a child barely older then her. She took one look at the beautiful blue dress the girl was wearing and knew that it had to be someone important.
"My apologies small Lady." Tima said as Linda had instructed her. She held her head respectfully low and waited for the girl to depart before continuing her work. But the child didn't move, with curiosity she looked at the tiny maid.
"Do you work here?" the child asked full of surprise. Instead of saying yes, Tima silently nodded her head.
"I didn't know father hired girls so young." The girl said stepping closer. As a thought hit her she did a polite curtsey and introduced herself.
"I'm Rei Windley. Do you have a name?" she asked with a slight giggle.
"Tima." Came the quiet reply. Rei moved forward and crawled onto her brother's bed to get a closer look. Making it now impossible for Tima to finish her work.
"Hello Tima, wouldn't you rather be at home playing? Why are you working for father instead?" Rei asked, the questions all coming out at the same time. Tima didn't know how to answer the Dukes daughter. Should she even be talking to someone of this stature? If she didn't answer soon though she might get into trouble. She took a deep breath and looked at the girl kneeling on the bed.
"Small Lady. This girl…I haven't got either." Tima replied quietly.
"Oh… I'm sorry. I didn't mean…" came Rei's awkward response.
"Forgive me small Lady." Tima replied quickly. The last thing that she wanted to do was offend the Dukes daughter after he had been kind enough to give her a place to stay and food on her plate.
"No, I'm sorry." Rei said. Then her eyes brightened up.
"Hey, why don't you come with me? I can make it up to you."
"Apologies small Lady."
"Call me Rei, please I hate that formal stuff."
"Rei… I must finish my chores." Tima replied reluctantly.
"I'll help you then, they can't get mad at you if your with me." Rei giggled. At first Tima tried to protest but soon saw that it was hopeless.
"She's not such a bad girl. And when was the last time I was with anyone my age?" She thought reluctantly accepting Rei's terms and surrendering.
"But I had fun that day, and after Linda found the two of us she even made changes with the Dukes consent to my schedule so I could spend some more time with Rei." Tima thought in her hole looking back at it she understood why the friendship had been allowed, even supported. Just like Tima herself, Rei has spent most of her life isolated from kids her own age. So the work staff had not minded loosing part of her hard work to help develop not only the Duke's daughter, but Tima's growth as well.
"The Duke should know about what happened here. Maybe I can even return to working at the castle where I belong? But I don't know if I can make it back to Windley on my own." She thought in the darkness.
After considering the matter for some time, Tima left that hiding spot for the last time. A small part of her understood that she would never see this town again. But she didn't look back as she located the camp of those two travelers. With a little luck they would help her reach Windley, if not then she would just start walking and hope.
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